Green New Deal Emerges As Wedge Issue On Climate Change In Democratic Debate

Low-polling centrists got plenty of airtime to criticize the ambitious plan that polls show is popular with Democrats.

DETROIT ― It took nearly 90 minutes for CNN moderators to ask 10 Democratic presidential contenders anything about climate change in a debate Tuesday night during which the questioners seemed to focus so often on conservative talking points that several candidates chided them of amplifying Republican messaging. 

Given that framing, it’s no surprise the first climate question went to former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, an avowed centrist whose best-known climate stance is his opposition to the Green New Deal

“It ties progress to other things that are completely unrelated to climate, like universal health care and guaranteed jobs,” Delaney said of the sweeping progressive plan that targets both climate change and economic inequality. 

He said that if elected president, he would make sure America achieves net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 through a price on carbon dioxide, boosting the Department of Energy’s research budget fivefold and promoting the development of technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Other of the more moderate candidates in the first of CNN’s back-to-back Democratic debates similarly turned a cold shoulder on the Green New Deal that the party’s progressive wing has embraced as the type of ambitious program needed to truly deal with climate change.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) veered away the Green New Deal, instead touting the important role of new agricultural practices in combating global warming. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock accused Green New Dealers of demonizing coal workers. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, dubbed “Frackenlooper” by activists critical of his vehement support for the oil and gas industry, dismissed the Green New Deal’s federal jobs guarantee as a “classic part of the problem” and a “distraction.” 

The Green New Deal received nearly zero airtime during the first round of debates among the Democrats in Miami last month, coming up once when Sen. Kamala Harris of California namechecked it in passing. But in this face-off in Detroit, it became clear that the movement for a comprehensive approach to ending the fossil fuel era has emerged as a wedge issue, highlighting clear divisions between the progressive and centrist wings warring for the future of the Democratic Party. 

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) looks on as fellow centrist John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman, speaks
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (left) looks on as fellow centrist John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman, speaks at Tuesday's debate among 10 Democratic presidential candidates in Detroit.

Meanwhile, the scattershot questions on environmental issues added new weight to calls by activists for an official Democratic debate singularly focused on climate change. CNN and MSNBC have scheduled forums on the issue for September, but the Democratic National Committee has yet to decide on whether to sanction an official debate on the matter. 

Rallying to the defense of the Green New Deal in Tuesday’s debate were the two top-polling progressive stalwarts in the Democratic race, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Both co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced in February that outlined the plan’s core tenets. 

“The Green New Deal is a bold idea,” Sanders said. “We can create millions of good-paying jobs. We can rebuild communities in rural America that have been devastated.”

Warren blasted Hickenlooper for echoing a GOP talking point to disparage the Green New Deal and touted the comprehensive climate plan she released last month that aims to create more than a million new green manufacturing jobs in the U.S.

“This could revitalize huge cities across this country. And no one wants to talk about it,” she said. “That’s the problem we’ve got in Washington. It continues to be a Washington that works great for oil companies, just not for people worried about climate change.” 

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke pleaded for unity on climate change. 

The Green New Deal is a bold idea. We can create millions of good-paying jobs. We can rebuild communities in rural America that have been devastated. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

The responses came just hours after as many as 2,000 demonstrators marched through downtown Detroit to demand a Green New Deal. Unlike protests at last month’s debate in Miami, a city ravaged by storms and threatened by sea-level rise, the march honed in on the Green New Deal’s economic promise.

The Service Employees International Union, the first national union to endorse the Green New Deal, rallied upward of 700 workers to attend the march, according to one organizer. The central demand of the protest was to make Detroit, the city that birthed the automobile age, “the engine of the Green New Deal.”

Sixty-three percent of adults nationwide think the Green New Deal is a “good idea,” compared to just 32% who said it was a “bad idea” and 5% who were unsure, according to a poll released this month by NPR, PBS and the Marist Institute. Those figures exactly mirrored support for legalizing marijuana. The plan enjoyed 86% support among Democrats and 64% among independents.

Earlier polling by the left-leaning outfit Data for Progress found the Green New Deal’s job guarantee alone enjoyed 55% support among eligible voters, with just 23% opposed. 

“It’s interesting that candidates like Delaney and Hickenlooper are criticizing the Green New Deal’s job guarantee components when that’s one of the most popular parts of the plan,” Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesman for Sunrise Movement that is focused on combating climate change, said while watching the debate. “This debate is held in Detroit, where so many people are looking for good-paying jobs transitioning our economy off fossil fuels and rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure.”